TORONTO – Almost immediately after the Milwaukee Bucks were stunningly brushed aside in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference Finals series with the Toronto Raptors, 120-102 Tuesday making the affair a best-of-three now, one of the rarest sights in basketball could be seen in the visitors’ locker room.
A Greek God — or at least the closest thing the NBA has to one — utterly defeated.
Giannis Antetokounmpo sat down in a locker stall that more appropriately looks like it was intended for visiting goaltenders to Scotiabank Arena, topless with a towel wrapped around his waist and his knees bandaged up to hold the ice packs that were cooling the essential joints off while his feet soaked in an even more frigid looking ice bath.
The Bucks superstar appeared to be deep in thought as his left hand kept his head from sinking to the ground while an array of media began surrounding him.
At first, Antetokounmpo appeared to be nonplussed by the crowd gathering around him in his relative nakedness, but then the cracks started to show: He began playing with his knuckles, he perused his phone a little bit and finally he closed his eyes, cupped his ears with his huge hands and sunk his head down again, almost like a child trying to forget a bad memory.
You can’t blame him, really, not when the opportunity for him to prevent this blowout and give his team a chance to be one win away from the Finals was ripe for the picking.
It wasn’t the biggest window, but during a five-minute, 54-second span between the end of the third quarter and start of the fourth there was a chance where Antetokounmpo could’ve finally put his stamp on this Eastern Conference Finals series and come up with the kind of spurt of individual brilliance an MVP front-runner should be capable of.
With 1:17 left to play in the third quarter, banged-up Raptors star Kawhi Leonard exited the game, giving Antetokounmpo a rare opportunity to finally shed himself of the Raptors shadow that had seemingly been following him around all game long as Toronto head coach Nick Nurse made a point to try to match Leonard’s time off with Antetokounmpo’s for most of the game.
At that point of the match, after Kyle Lowry converted on a free throw, the Raptors were threatening to run away with the game, taking a 91-76 lead.
It was going to be now or never for the Bucks and Antetokounmpo knew that. As such, on the ensuing Milwaukee possession, Antetokounmpo got a switch with Norman Powell on him and also saw the perimeter mismatch of Serge Ibaka on Malcolm Brogdon. Recognizing this, he sent a pass Brogon’s way and the Bucks guard made good on it by cruising in for a layup.
The Raptors would respond, however, as Powell then hit a pull-up triple with 36 seconds to play in the quarter. Antetokounmpo then responded in kind with his own triple to pull the Bucks within 13 to end the frame and there was the feeling that he just might do something special in the final period.
Then the fourth quarter started, and despite Leonard being off the floor for the first 4:37 of it, Antetokounmpo was abjectly poor, scoring just one more point as he split a pair of free throws — a common theme for him all night long — near the beginning of the frame, adding to a Raptors four-point play by fouling Ibaka underneath the rim while a Fred VanVleet triple banked and rattled home, and finally turning the ball over leading to the death knell Powell fast-break reverse layup that put the Raptors up by 20.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer had no choice but to take a timeout there and get Antetokounmpo off the floor, with 8:31 remaining and Leonard still on the bench.
Overall, Antetokounmpo had a fine game as he scored 25 points, pulled down 10 rebounds and dished out five assists while shooting 9-for-17 from the field.
But when the chance was there, Antetokounmpo simply didn’t deliver, good statistical game be damned.
And this is probably why after the game, Antetokounmpo appeared to be so deep in thought. He knows he had a shot and he knows his team was counting on him to make good on it.
"He has a focus that’s maybe a little heightened," said Budenholzer during morning shootaround before Game 4. "He’s always anxious to come back and play. It’s one of the things among many, many things, that makes him great. I think he, along with everybody else, is ready to play today."
Added Brogdon, also at shootaround: "Giannis is the MVP. He’s going to be resilient. He’s as resilient as they come."
Not resilient enough it would seem.
So, there was Antetokounmpo with his eyes closed and head in his hands, trying to block out the world until he finally opened his eyes and started undoing the bandages, took his feet out of the ice bath and headed to the showers.
When he emerged in a grey-blue tracksuit to finally sit down and answer questions, you could almost picture him wanting to return to that vulnerable position he was just in a few minutes earlier.
"We don’t need any change. They did a good job and now we’ve gotta do a better job," Antetokounmpo said.
Later he added: "There’s no pressure. Obviously, we’ve gotta take care of home — it’s our job — but there’s no pressure. We’ve just gotta go out there, have fun, play good basketball and try to win."
These are the right things to say, but they also sounded like he’s saying them more to convince himself.
How could he not?
Game 5 goes Thursday in Milwaukee and how Antetokounmpo responds will be of great interest.